The Role of Small Telescopes in Modern Astronomy, October 14-15, 1996, Lowell Observatory


The Importance of Small Telescopes to Research and to Future Generations of Astronomers

John Huchra
Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics

There is a long and glorious history of important and fundamental research with small telescopes. Even in cosmology, small telescopes have been key in recent work on the Hubble constant and on mapping large scale structure. The IRTF relation was ``discovered'' on the KPNO 0.9-m and calibrated on the mighty KPNO 0.1-m; large surveys such as the CfA Redshift Survey were done on small telescopes (the FLWO 1.5-m) and it is not possible to assess the great contribution to astronomy made by the Palomar Sky Survey, which was done on a 1.2-m telescope. Small telescopes are absolutely necessary for key projects, trying out novel ideas, testing instrumentation, teaching and just the general practice of astronomy.

However, there is no doubt that ``times are a changing.'' There are numerous issues that need to be addressed in assessing the need for small telescopes in general and the need for small telescopes at the National Observatories. A short list includes the need for access, amateur astronomers, Federal versus state versus private funding, the synergy of small telescopes feeding large telescopes, and last but not least, budgets --- operations, site costs, moderan instrumentation, peripherals.

The good news is that, despite all this, many new small telescopes are being built. And, amateurs now run 1-m class telescopes. The bad news is that with fixed budgets, the National Observatories can no longer *easily* provide access to every type of telescope and instrument. There is no right of access to facilities of every kind for every scientist; the NSF exists to enable science in general. A more positive way of thinking about our current problem at NOAO, is that it's really an opportunity. I once said ``the 4-m is the 60-inch of the future.'' The astronomical commnunity *is* getting Gemini plus new access to 4-m telescopes like WIYN and SOAR, so in reality our national facilities are just getting bigger by a factor of two! We're redefining small.

If the community wants to push for more or continued support for small telescopes, the issues to address *must* be science based. We must take the high road. Individual key projects like the Sloan DSS, training and education, the development of special purpose consortia (not Federally funded) are all good arguments. It is absolutely clear that small telescopes are needed and indeed are a National treasure. New small telescopes are being built right now, like the 2MASS telescopes, justified by important scientific programs best done on small telescopes. It is also clear that the community will need some creativity in finding funding sources and will likely need to find new ways of operating them.


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